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Posts Tagged ‘Taxes’

Treasury closed the financial books on fiscal 2014 last week. As my colleague Howard Gleckman noted, the top line figures all came in close to their 40-year averages. The $483 billion deficit was about 2.8 percent of gross domestic product, for example, slightly below the 3.2 percent average of the past four decades. Tax revenues clocked in at 17.5 percent of GDP, a smidgen above their 17.3 percent 40-year average. And spending was 20.3 percent, a bit below its 20.5 percent average.

Taxes, spending, and deficits thus appear to be back to “normal.” If anything, fiscal policy in 2014 was slightly tighter than the average of the past four decades.

That’s all true, as a matter of arithmetic. But should we use the past 40 years as a benchmark for normal budget policy?

It’s common to do so. The Congressional Budget Office often reports 40-year averages to help put budget figures in context. I’ve invoked 40-year averages as much as anyone.

But what has been the result of that “normal” policy? From 1975 to today, the federal debt swelled from less than 25 percent of GDP to more than 70 percent. I don’t think many people would view that as normal. Or maybe it is normal, but not in a good way.

Just before the Great Recession, the federal debt was only 35 percent of GDP. Over the previous four decades (1968 through 2007), the deficit had averaged 2.3 percent of GDP, almost a percentage point lower than today’s 40-year average.

That comparison illustrates the problem with mechanically using 40-year averages as a benchmark for normal. A few extreme years can skew the figures. In 2007, we would have said deficits around 2 percent of GDP were normal. Today, the post-Great Recession average tempts us to think of 3 percent as normal. The Great Recession has similarly skewed up average spending (from 19.9 percent to 20.5 percent) and skewed down average taxes (from 17.6 percent to 17.3 percent).

As recent years demonstrate, we don’t want a normal budget every year. When the economy is weak, it makes sense for taxes to fall and spending and deficits to rise. When the economy is strong, deficits should come down, perhaps even disappear, through a mix of higher revenues and lower spending.

Looking over the business cycle, however, it is useful to have some budget benchmarks. A mechanical calculation of 40-year averages won’t serve. Instead, we need more objective benchmarks. On Twitter, Brad Delong suggested one benchmark for deficits: the level that would keep the debt-to-GDP ratio constant. I welcome other suggestions.

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Today I had the chance to testify before the House Small Business Committee on the many tax issues facing small business. Here are my opening remarks. You can find my full testimony here.

America’s tax system is needlessly complex, economically harmful, and often unfair. Despite recent revenue gains, it likely will not raise enough money to pay the government’s future bills. The time is thus ripe for wholesale tax reform. Such reform could have far-reaching effects, including on small business. To help you evaluate those effects, I’d like to make seven points about the tax issues facing small business.

1. Tax compliance places a large burden on small businesses, both in the aggregate and relative to large businesses.

The Internal Revenue Service estimates that businesses with less than $1 million in revenue bear almost two-thirds of business compliance costs. Those costs are much larger, relative to revenues or assets, for small firms than for big ones.

2. Small businesses are more likely to underpay their taxes.

Because they often deal in cash and engage in transactions that are not reported to the IRS, small businesses can understate their revenues and overstate their expenses and thus underpay their taxes. Some underpayment is inadvertent, reflecting the difficulty of complying with our complex tax code, and some is intentional. High compliance costs disadvantage responsible small businesses, while the greater opportunity to underpay taxes advantages less responsible ones.

3. The current tax code offers small businesses several advantages over larger ones.

Provisions such as Section 179 expensing, cash accounting, graduated corporate tax rates, and special capital gains taxes benefit businesses that are small in terms of investment, income, or assets.

4. Several of those advantages expired at the end of last year and thus are part of the current “tax extenders” debate.

These provisions include expanded eligibility for Section 179 expensing and larger capital gains exclusions for investments in qualifying small businesses. Allowing these provisions to expire and then retroactively resuscitating them is a terrible way to make tax policy. If Congress believes these provisions are beneficial, they should be in place well before the start of the year, so businesses can make investment and funding decisions without needless uncertainty.

5. Many small businesses also benefit from the opportunity to organize as pass-through entities such as S corporations, limited liability companies, partnerships, and sole proprietorships.

These structures all avoid the double taxation that applies to income earned by C corporations. Some large businesses adopt these forms as well, and account for a substantial fraction of pass-through economic activity. Policymakers should take care not to assume that all pass-throughs are small businesses.

6. Tax reform could recalibrate the tradeoff between structuring as a pass-through or as a C corporation.

Many policymakers and analysts have proposed revenue-neutral business reforms that would lower the corporate tax rate while reducing tax breaks. Such reforms would likely favor C corporations over pass-throughs, since all companies could lose tax benefits while only C corporations would benefit from lower corporate tax rates.

7. Tax reform could shift the relative tax burdens on small and large businesses.

Some tax reforms would reduce or eliminate tax benefits aimed at small businesses, such as graduated corporate rates. Other reforms—e.g., lengthening depreciation and amortization schedules for investments or advertising but allowing safe harbors for small amounts—would increase the relative advantage that small businesses enjoy. The net effect of tax reform will thus depend on the details and may vary among businesses of different sizes, industries, and organizational forms. It also depends on the degree to which lawmakers use reform as an opportunity to reduce compliance burdens on small businesses.

 

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Congressional negotiators are trying to craft a budget deal by mid-December. Fareed Zakaria’s Global Public Square asked twelve experts what they hoped that deal would include. My suggestion: it’s time to fix the budget process:

Odds are slim that the budget conference will deliver anything big on substance. No grand bargain, no sweeping tax reform, no big stimulus paired with long-term budget restraint. At best, conferees might replace the next round of sequester cuts with more selective spending reductions spread over the next decade.

Those dim substantive prospects create a perfect opportunity for conferees to pivot to process. In principle, Congress ought to make prudent, considered decisions about taxes and spending programs. In reality, we’ve lurched from the fiscal cliff to a government shutdown to threats of default. We make policy in the shadow of self-imposed crises without addressing our long-run budget imbalances or near-term economic challenges. Short-term spending bills keep the government open – usually –  but make it difficult for agencies to pursue multiyear goals and do little to distinguish among more and less worthy programs. And every few years, we openly discuss default as part of the political theater surrounding the debt limit.

The budget conferees should thus publicly affirm what everyone already knows: America’s budget process is broken. They should identify the myriad flaws and commit themselves to fixing them. Everything should be on the table, including repealing or replacing the debt limit, redesigning the structure of congressional committees, and rethinking the ban on earmarks.

Conferees won’t be able to resolve those issues by their December 13 deadline. But the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. The budget conferees should use their moment in the spotlight to do so.

P.S. Other suggestions include investing in basic research, reforming the tax system, and slashing farm programs. For all twelve, see here.

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Remember the 47%? Well, my colleagues at the Tax Policy Center just updated the numbers. For 2013, they estimate that the fraction of Americans not paying any federal income tax is down to 43%. Why? Because the economy is recovering and tax cut stimulus has ebbed. A decade from now, they predict, it will be 34%.

Bob Williams, the Sol Price Fellow at the Urban Institute, explains the number in this video. Key point: the 43% may not pay any federal income tax, but that doesn’t mean they don’t pay taxes:

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At 8:30 this morning, Uncle Sam suddenly shrunk.

Federal spending fell from 21.5 percent of gross domestic product to 20.8 percent, while taxes declined from 17.5 percent to 16.9 percent.

To be clear, the government is spending and collecting just as much as it did yesterday. But we now know that the U.S. economy is bigger than we thought. GDP totaled $16.2 trillion in 2012, for example, about $560 billion larger than the Bureau of Economic Analysis previously estimated. That 3.6 percent boost reflects the Bureau’s new accounting system, which now treats research and development and artistic creation as investments rather than immediate expenses.

In the days and months ahead, analysts will sort through these and other revisions (which stretch back to 1929) to see how they change our understanding of America’s economic history. But one effect is already clear: the federal budget is smaller, relative to the economy, than previously thought.

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The public debt, for example, was on track to hit 75 percent of GDP at year’s end; that figure is now 72.5 percent. Taxes had averaged about 18 percent of GDP over the past four decades; now that figure is about 17.5 percent. Average spending similarly got marked down from 21 percent of GDP to about 20.5 percent.

These changes have no direct practical effect—federal programs and tax collections are percolating along just as before. But they will change how we talk about the federal budget.

Measured against an economy that is bigger than we thought, Uncle Sam now appears slightly smaller. Wonks need to update their budget talking points accordingly.

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Max Baucus and Dave Camp, leaders of the Senate and House tax-writing committees, are on the road promoting tax simplification. One goal: cleaning out the mess of deductions, exclusions, credits, and other tax breaks that complicate the code.

Done well, such house cleaning could make for a simpler, fairer, more pro-growth tax code. It could also shrink government’s role in the economy. Eric Toder and I explore that theme in a recently released paper, Tax Policy and the Size of Government. Here’s our intro:

How big a role the government should play in the economy is always a central issue in political debates. But measuring the size of government is not simple. People often use shorthand measures, such as the ratio of spending to gross domestic product (GDP) or of tax revenues to GDP. But those measures leave out important aspects of government action. For example, they do not capture the ways governments use deductions, credits, and other tax preferences to make transfers and influence resource use.

We argue that many tax preferences are effec¬tively spending through the tax system. As a result, traditional measures of government size understate both spending and revenues. We then present data on trends in U.S. federal spending and revenues, using both traditional budget measures and measures that reclassify “spending-like tax preferences” as spending rather than reduced revenue. We find that the Tax Reform Act of 1986 reduced the government’s size significantly, but only temporarily. Spending-like tax prefer¬ences subsequently expanded and are now larger, relative to the economy, than they were before tax reform.

We conclude by examining how various tax and spending changes would affect different measures of government size. Reductions in spending-like tax preferences are tax increases in traditional budget accounting but are spending reductions in our expanded measure. Increasing marginal tax rates, in contrast, raises both taxes and spending in our expanded measure. Some tax increases thus reduce the size of government, while others increase it.

Eric and I first presented this line of reasoning in How Big is the Federal Government? in March 2012. Our latest paper, recently published in the conference proceedings of the National Tax Association, is a pithier presentation of those ideas.

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Immigration policy poses an unusual challenge for the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation. If Congress allows more people into the United States, our population, labor force, and economy will all get bigger. But CBO and JCT usually hold employment, gross domestic product (GDP), and other macroeconomic variables constant when making their budget estimates. In Beltway jargon, CBO and JCT don’t do macro-dynamic scoring.

That non-dynamic approach works well for most legislation CBO and JCT consider, with occasional concerns when large tax or spending proposals might have material macroeconomic impacts.

That approach makes no sense, however, for immigration reforms that would directly increase the population and labor force. Consider, for example, an immigration policy that would boost the U.S. population by 8 million over ten years and add 3.5 million new workers. If CBO and JCT tried to hold population constant in their estimates, they’d have to assume that 8 million existing residents would leave to make room for the newcomers. That makes no sense. If they allowed the population to rise, but kept employment constant, they’d have to assume a 3.5 million increase in unemployment. That makes no sense. And if they allowed employment to expand, but kept GDP constant, they’d have to assume a sharp drop in U.S. productivity and wages. That makes no sense.

Because increased immigration has such a direct economic effect, the only logical thing to do is explicitly score the budget impacts of increased population and employment. And that’s exactly what CBO and JCT intend to do. In a letter to House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan on Thursday, CBO Director Doug Elmendorf explained that the two agencies would follow the same approach they used back in 2006, the last time Congress considered (but did not pass) major immigration reforms.

In scoring the 2006 legislation, JCT estimated how higher employment would boost total wages and thus increase income and payroll taxes, and CBO estimated how a bigger population would boost spending on programs like Medicaid, Food Stamps, and Social Security. They found that the legislation would boost revenues by $66 billion over the 2007-2016 budget window and would boost mandatory spending by $54 billion; various provisions also authorized another $25 billion in discretionary spending subject to future appropriations decisions.

I remember that estimate well since I was then CBO’s acting director. At the time, I thought this was a pretty big deal, doing a dynamic score of a major piece of legislation. I expected some reaction or controversy. Instead, we got crickets. It just wasn’t a big deal. The direct economic effects of expanded immigration—bigger population, bigger work force, more wages—were so straightforward that folks accepted this exception from standard protocol. I hope the same is true this time around.

Note: The approach CBO and JCT will use in scoring immigration legislation is only partially dynamic. It accounts for the direct effects of increased immigration, such as a bigger population and labor force, but not indirect effects such as changing investment. In other words, it follows the standard convention of excluding indirect changes in the macroeconomy; the innovation is accounting for the direct effects. We used the same approach in 2006, analyzing indirect effects in a companion report separate from the official budget score. CBO and JCT will take the same approach this time around.

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